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Gatis Kovaļkovs v. Latvia, No. 35021/05, ECtHR (Third Section), 31 January 2012

Type Judgment
Case number 35021/05


Religious freedom of the prisoners. Restrictions on freedom of religion in the correctional facility. Obligations of the prison authorities.

Normative references

Art. 9 ECHR


The national authorities enjoy a certain margin of appreciation in guaranteeing the inmates’ freedom of worship, enshrined in art. 9 ECHR. In determining concrete ways for exercising religious freedom inside the correctional facility, national authorities must seek a fair balance between the competing interests of the individual and of the prison community as a whole (case in which the Strasbourg Court has found that the restrictions imposed on the applicant, a follower of Vishnuism, by the penitentiary authorities were reasonable and justified. Specifically, the national authorities denied the applicant the use of a single cell and seized some sticks of incense, that were used for performing religious rituals).


In the grounds for the judgment, the European Court highlighted that the applicant asked to be placed in a single cell in order to exercise his freedom of worship undisturbed by other prisoners, but refused to use alternative premises for performing religious rituals. In this context, the Strasbourg Court considered that having to pray, read religious literature and to meditate in the presence of others is an inconvenience, which is almost inescapable in prisons, yet which does not go against the very essence of the freedom to manifest one’s religion. Finally, the European Court stated that restricting the list of items permitted for storage in prison cells by excluding items (such as incense sticks) which are not essential for manifesting a prisoner’s religion is a proportionate response to the necessity to protect the rights and freedoms of others.